Behind the screens

The Flick (Queensland Theatre in association with QPAC presents a Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre production)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

February 10 – March 5

One of the appeals of seeing a realist work is the implied authenticity that comes from voyeuristically looking upon the unfold of action from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. In the case of Queensland Theatre’s “The Flick”, however, it is not so much fly-on-the-wall as fly-on-the-screen, thanks to the play’s unique staging. Shaun Gurton’s minimalistic set sees the audience faced with banks of faded red plush seating in replication of an old movie theatre. As things begin with a light beaming from the projector box, realisation is made that the cinema screen is the fourth wall.

After the credits roll on the ceiling, the cinema house lights go up to reveal the empty auditorium of the play’s rundown theatre. This is a cinema in central Massachusetts, one of the few yet to switch from 35MM to digital film, where introverted new employee Avery (Kevin Hofbauer) is being shown the ropes by 35 year old, unfulfilled Sam (Ben Prendergast). Avery is passionate about film and his conversations with Sam and his six degrees of separation challenges (Michael J Fox to Britney Spears for instance) serve to break up the monotony of cleaning the theatre. As snippets of their characters are revealed, so too is Rose (Ngaire Dawn Fair), the projectionist. Each has their own sometimes-explained family failures of sorts and demons of everyday life, but like in a real-world workplace, these fade to mere anecdotal accompaniment to the meaningless banter of on-the-job business, the seemingly harmless hijinks of employee traditions and a developing love triangle.

Annie Baker, This is realism at its most realistic; the setting is deliberately ordinary and dialogue is of everyday vernacular, rather than heightened for effect. Indeed, the ‘everydayness’ conveys a clear tedium and almost Chekhovian yearning to the three quietly desperate characters. This is the complexity of the script by American playwright Annie Baker who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the off-Broadway hit. The pace is incredibly slow as they sweep and speak with long punctuating pauses, yet there are also moments of unexpected humour as they ridicule an unseen boss and wonder who would bring pudding to a cinema.

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For over three hours the audience is challenged to observe the monotony of the experiences of the play’s characters. And while things could adequately have ended a number of times towards the work’s conclusion, Act One’s threads pay off rewardingly after intermission. Also engaging are the performances of the three main cast members, all in their Queensland Theatre debut, who are stellar in bringing subtly to what could easily have been stereotypical characters. Hofbauer, however, is a standout; his sensitive performance as Avery elevates the production to a higher level.

With references to the upcoming release of “Django Unchained” and fears of digitalisation, “The Flick” could easily be regarded as a mere work of its time, however, the show also examines some resonate themes of ethicacy around the conflict between morality and self-interest, which makes it so much more. Movies are central to the narrative and cinema fans will enjoy the many mentions as part of Sam and Avery’s ongoing debate about if “Avatar” is actually a good movie or if there has been a great American film since “Pulp Fiction. Even those unfamiliar with the works, will appreciate the irony of Avery’s dramatic delivery of Samuel L. Jackson’s “Pulp Fiction” misquote Ezekiel 25:17 bibke exhortation about the path of the righteous man being beset by the inequities of the selfish.

In endurance terms, “The Flick” is more marathon than sprint, and despite the extra distance added to its end, it is most worth the audience effort. Although its American accents may be initially jarring to the ear and without hint of any of the low vowels distinctive of Massachusetts sounds, audience absorption into the tragicomedy of the character’s menial lives is such that this is soon forgotten. Indeed, beyond its brave, sometimes self-indulgent pacing the work serves as a slow burn, sure to leave a lasting impression of its love, loss and piles of popcorn.

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